- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 30, 2015

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Alabama agencies on Wednesday announced the closure of smaller state parks, National Guard armories and nearly half of drivers’ license offices to deal with budget cuts in the coming fiscal year.

The changes- announced on the eve of the Oct. 1. start of the fiscal year - come after months of warning by Gov. Robert Bentley’s office and continued doubts by some lawmakers over whether the closures were necessary.

The governor said the closures are, “being made by the Legislature simply because of inadequate funding from the Legislature.” Lawmakers approved a general fund budget with $82 million in cuts after rejecting Bentley’s call for larger tax increases throughout three legislative sessions.

“Since March I’ve been around the state- continuously telling the people of this state - that if we didn’t adequately fund the general fund, the essential services of government would be cut,” Bentley said.

However, the Senate budget chairman said he had concerns that the cuts were in conflict with budget language dictating that state agencies should only cut direct services as a “last resort.”

“I am concerned that the cuts appear to be coming at the expense of services to the people and not the Montgomery bureaucracy which flies in the face of legislative intent that the bureaucracy be cut first and not services,” Senate Finance and Taxation General Fund Chairman Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said.

The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency said it is pulling examiners out of 31 part-time satellite drivers’ license offices. The closures will require people to go to one of the remaining 44 drivers’ license offices if they must take a driving exam. Renewals can still be conducted in those counties via county workers, self-service kiosks or online, said an ALEA spokeswoman.

The examiners currently travel to the locations one or two days a week. The agency said the change will save money on travel costs to the offices that collectively handle less than five percent of all license transactions.

The closures hit Alabama’s rural areas the hardest and will leave many counties without an examiner to administer tests.

“As far as the drivers’ license offices, I just can’t fathom why closures are necessary. In my county, the state trooper only gives exams one day a week. And on that day, people wait in line all day,” said Rep. Elaine Beech, D-Chatom. “I think this a way to scare people into doing something whether it be raising taxes or other means,” Beech said.

ALEA said the farthest a person will have to travel is no more than 50 miles to take a driving exam. However, Rep. Darrio Melton, D-Selma, said transportation is already a problem for residents in the high-poverty Black Belt.

The reductions could be in conflict with budget language that said lawmakers intended to keep all drivers’ license offices open and to avoid cuts to direct services.

Bentley argued that lawmakers violated the separation of powers between branches of government by trying to dictate how executive-branch agencies handle budget cuts. The Alabama Supreme Court justices Wednesday denied Bentley’s request for an advisory opinion on whether the language was constitutional.

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources announced the closure of five of Alabama’s 22 state parks because of budget cuts.

Bladon Springs in Silas, Paul Grist in Selma, Chickasaw in Linden, Roland Cooper near Camden and Florala will shutter on Oct. 15. The parks each saw between 1,700 and 21,700 visitors in 2013.

“It is with great disappointment that we have to make this announcement today,” Conservation Commissioner Gunter Guy said.

Guy says the parks were selected because they have consistently lost money.

Several state parks will have reduced hours of operations. For example, Rickwood Caverns in Warrior and Blue Springs park in Clio will close in the fall and winter.

The Alabama National Guard announced it will close an additional six armories in addition to the 15 in already planned to shutter by the end of fiscal year 2017. The six additional facilities are located in Huntsville, Alexander City, Winfield, Demopolis, Marion and Eufaula.

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